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Guided busways have become the flavour of the month. Schemes are planned to take over disused trackbeds such as at Oxford and Northampton and to replace the disused line from Luton to Dunstable.
Guided busways are supposed to offer the advantages of light rail at lower cost. But do they?
Guided bus systems use broadly conventional buses to run on a dedicated guideway. The buses can operate normally on normal roads.
There are three main types of guided busways:
(i) Kerb-guided busway. Horizontal guide wheels are fixed permanently in front of the bus front wheels. The guide wheels are linked to the steering gear and guided by a beam or kerb on each side of the busway.
(ii) Guided light transit. A central guide rail or rails are followed by retractable guide wheels linked to the steering. Roads can be paved around the guide rail or rails.
(iii) A third type involves electric cables buried under the road surface. They govern the bus steering gear through receiving apparatus mounted on the bus to pick up signals.
There are major doubts concerning operational viability and safety for guided busways. This may explain why there are very few major schemes operating around the world.
In Germany, Essen has a scheme over a four-mile guideway, and in Adelaide, Australia, there is a seven-and-a-half mile guideway scheme in operation.
Neither of these schemes has been expanded. In Adelaide, there have been serious rear-end collisions, and vehicles are now fitted with rear-end stripes and flashing beacons for use if a vehicle has to stop. This illustrates the problems of pretending that a busway can be the equivalent of a train running without signals. In the UK there are two short sections currently operating, in Leeds ( a mile and a quarter) and in Ipswich (200 yards).
There have been several accidents involving guide wheels. All of the above busways are of the kerb-guided type.
In order for busways to run as safely as trains, a number of additional features would be required such as level crossing protection signalling and radio control. No "safety case" involving rigorous safety checks is required in contrast to the railway situation.
Guided busways cannot be as reliable as trains. Bus breakdowns can block lanes on the busway itself. Any timetables involving buses leaving the busway to pick up passengers on normal roads will render the schedules unreliable because of the traffic on normal roads. In contrast, through running is possible on a railway to all parts of the railway system. Reliability can be drastically affected by any delays in boarding buses or at crossing points. Theoretical headway times between buses are then sharply reduced, limiting the route capacity.
Buses are less comfortable than trains. Steel wheel on steel rail can give a very smooth ride. The lack of reliability and difference in comfort mean that people will give up their cars to travel by trains but they will not easily switch from cars to buses.
Busways have serious difficulties of construction compared with railways. For example, building a busway involves the construction of long sections of drainage. These are not normally needed on a railway which absorbs moisture through the track ballast.
Busways are generally more expensive in terms of passengers carried than light rail or tramway. Prices quoted for busways often exclude a significant part of the construction costs as it is envisaged that a former railway trackbed will be used.
Taking into account construction costs, operating costs and passenger capacity, it has been calculated that the cost per passenger mile is 43% higher for the Adelaide system than for the average light rail system in the US.
Once the system is up and running, operating costs lower for light rail. One driver can drive a train with the capacity of several buses.
Another advantage for rail is that its vehicles last three to four times longer than buses, offsetting cheaper bus construction costs.
Reinstating train services on a freight-only line is the cheapest option of all for start-up costs because normally only route upgrading is required. This also has the advantage that railway technology is proven.
Busways have two important drawbacks. Freight cannot be carried, unlike railways which can carry freight and are part of a network which penetrates numerous industrial areas.
Second, the use of buses involves more pollution overall and particularly at the point of use. More energy is required for road vehicles than for rail because friction is far less for steel wheel on steel rail.
Furthermore, railways can be electrified to use electricity from power stations where pollution is more easily controlled at source.
In the long run, that electricity can be derived from renewable sources such as wave and wind power.
An indication of public attitudes to busways is given by the reaction to an extensive non-guided system in Ottawa, Canada. The busways have not gone down well and pressure is mounting for light rail instead. While the 19-mile Ottawa system is not guided, it shows that busways are not as successful as some people would like to believe.
Thanks for help with this article to the Light Rail Transit Association, PO Box 302, Gloucester GL4 4ZD. Tel/fax: 01452 419900
Reopening the Luton-Dunstable railway line has foundered on the unhealthy preoccupation of the Department of Transport and some local politicians with busways. For years both Bedfordshire and Luton have had a road-only transport policy. Moves towards a more sensible policy have been slow and there are still many local politicians wedded to roads.
A road-based solution will give nothing but more congestion and more pollution. Buses using the busway would also use the existing congested roads, so timetables would be impossible to adhere to and pollution would be worsened.
Rail by contrast can give comfort, regeneration, a better quality of life for both travellers and people living throughout the area.
Good quality single track - too narrow for buses but ideal for trains - remains in situ for most of the five miles between Luton and Dunstable but some engineering work would be needed to extend it beyond Dunstable. Ideally it could link up with the Leighton-Linslade conurbation which is already served north-south by the West Coast main line. Electrification would probably mean that no new trains would have to be provided. Services to Dunstable could be provided with spare existing stock. The link could also be run as a light rail Metro style line. This could however prevent large-scale through running and long-term use as a diversionary route.
Campaigner Harry Maughan who lives in Linslade says that the civil engineering needed for the Dunstable to Leighton-Linslade stretch would not be difficult. A new alignment would be needed around south Leighton-Linslade, and it would also bring more potential passengers.
Land acquisition and costs would be similar to that for the recently constructed Leighton-Linslade bypass which was £22 million for nine miles.
Dunstable Park could be the principal station on "the Downs line" and it could have full ticket office facilities.
The existing Linslade (Leighton Buzzard) station on the West Coast main line is already a significant park-and-ride point, attracting 580 cars on weekdays. Dunstable could easily achieve a similar figure.
Mr Maughan believes funding could come from a variety of sources, including local councils, train operators, government and European grants and private companies.
He has spent 47 years coping with the impossible traffic conditions in South Bedfordshire, but has fond memories of how easy it was to travel from Leighton-Linslade to Luton by rail.
Mr Maughan points out that the reopened rail line can deliver one of the key aims of the county's structure plan - enhancing the economic and social opportunities available to its population, and assist in economic development and regeneration, especially in the Luton-Dunstable-Houghton Regis corridor.
Another key aim of the structure plan is to provide the opportunity for people to use public transport, and to locate developments and distribution and warehousing facilities at places reached by public transport and rail transport.
Other reopened lines have attracted good business to the railways. Since 1982, 24 lines and 150 stations have reopened. ScotRail alone has provided 50 new stations in the past 10 years.
A golden opportunity has been missed to reopen the Luton-Dunstable line as part of a major rail improvement for the South Beds area. Work has already started on a new station on the Midland main line to serve Luton airport.
The station will clear the way for airline passengers and holidaymakers to use Thameslink trains but it could also give a jump start to providing another rail link between the Midland and West Coast main lines ™ a South Beds rail corridor, integrated with air and main line traffic.
Dunstable is one of the largest towns in Britain without a rail service and congestion on the A505 between Luton and Dunstable is horrendous. It is Bedfordshire's busiest road after the M1. Pollution levels in Dunstable town centre regularly exceed World Health Organisation guidelines and the whole area suffers from chronic traffic congestion.
It is so bad that a single incident in the area gridlocks Luton, Dunstable, Houghton Regis and beyond for hours. The Department of Transport has granted £200,000 under the Transport Policies and Programme procedure, half to Luton Borough Council and half to Bedfordshire.
The money will go to experts for a feasibility study into the "corridor" and one of the options will be to rip up the tracks and build a busway instead. Yet for that money the existing rail line could have been reopened and three stations provided. Pacers, which have been displaced from many other routes, could be used to reintroduce a no-frills rail service with little expense.
Dunstable could easily be put back on the rail network. Former Network SouthEast chief Chris Green had plans to do that 10 years ago, and some Thameslink trains still have Dunstable on their destination blinds. He wanted to electrify the route and provide a half-hourly service. It would have cost a mere £8 million.
Now the line could be extended to the new airport station which could become an interchange station for the whole of South Beds.
Those of us who attended the annual meeting of the National Council for Inland Transport in Leeds in October, saw a good example of a busway which is attracting people out of cars in a suburban corridor which is not, and never was, rail served although it did have trams and was at one time intended to have trolleybuses.
Space which might otherwise have been used for road widening has been converted to a busway for part of the route, which carries fairly intensive bus services to a variety of suburban areas.
This is one scheme bringing improved transit to areas which rail cannot reach. It is not replacing rail - existing or potential, light or heavy. There is no point, however, in proposing busways for lines like Luton-Dunstable or Cambridge-St Ives.
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